Ukraine’s Jews: A “Well-Integrated Community,” And Yet…

With so much spin and counter-spin amidst the ongoing public relations war between Ukraine and Russia, with charges and counter-charges on anti-Semitism, not to mention accusations of all-out “fascism,” it’s important to step back and take stock of the reality on the ground. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Kyiv where I attended events organized in tandem with the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, in which the Nazis and their Ukrainian allies murdered tens of thousands of Jews. Over the course of several conversations, local community leaders and experts expressed that the Jewish community was “well-integrated” into Ukrainian society, though unfortunately rightists remain a constant irritant and threaten to derail inter-ethnic understanding.

To get a better sense of Kyiv’s Jewish community, I take a stroll through the Podil neighborhood. Walking through the historic Jewish quarter, I come upon a local synagogue. Built in 1895, the synagogue was officially declared a private residence in order to avoid problems with anti-Semitic Czarist authorities of the day. Despite this troubled history, however, Podil seems tranquil and serene to the naked eye. “People here feel quite safe,” says Kirill Danilchenko of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. Danilchenko, whose office lies just a few blocks from the synagogue itself, adds that Podil has a few kosher restaurants and residents walk the streets without fear while outfitted in Jewish clothing. Local Jewish residents, he remarks, walk their kids to a playground located next to the synagogue and “people are completely unguarded, just a mother with ten kids. If you need an armed guard, you actually need to go out of your way to find one around here.”

Local Arts Scene

Across town I head to Pinchuk Art Centre, a museum funded by wealthy Ukrainian-Jewish philanthropist Viktor Pinchuk. There, I meet with artistic director Bjorn Geldhof who shows me around a moving exhibit entitled “Loss, In Memory of Babi Yar.” The exhibit showcases internationally acclaimed contributing artists including Christian Boltanski, Berlinde De Bruyckere and Jenny Holzer. I was particularly struck by Boltanski’s work, which features hundreds of metal boxes which form a narrow corridor leading to a gigantic pile of dark clothes. The boxes are numbered randomly and are meant to evoke funeral urns at Babi Yar, where victims were ordered to bring their valuables and papers which had been kept in metal boxes. Once local Jews arrived at Babi Yar, a ravine located outside the city center, the papers were burnt in front of the victims’ eyes.

As we walk around the exhibit, Geldhof says “there’s been a great emotional response to the show, and during the opening itself people were moved to tears.” The media, he adds, provided the show with a lot of positive exposure. I’m curious to know, however, whether right wing Ukrainian nationalists have physically harassed museum staff or threatened the Pinchuk Art Centre in any way. “Not in the slightest,” Geldhof replies, explaining that he hasn’t felt the need to request any police assistance. Indeed, he adds, the museum has consistently tackled controversial political subject matter throughout its ten-year history yet the center has never been subject to violent attack or reprisals.

To be sure, Geldhof concedes that Pinchuk Arts Centre is something of an anomaly within Ukraine. The museum is the only one of its kind to showcase sensitive material, ranging from Babi Yar to another show dealing with the LGBT community. When I ask Geldhof why this should be the case he responds, “Well, there aren’t so many museums to begin with. And I think our colleagues don’t have the same means to put on these kinds of exhibitions. Other museums do very valuable work to be sure, but they don’t do what we do and that’s fine. It would be great to have an alternative, but that’s just where the country is at this point.”

Historian of the Holocaust

On the margins of Babi Yar commemorative events, I meet up with Yale historian Tim Snyder, who is somewhat optimistic about Ukraine and the notion of cultivating a pluralistic and multi-ethnic society. Snyder praises Kyiv’s efforts at pulling off the Babi Yar commemoration, noting the government spent a whole week promoting different events including conferences and lectures. “This is a very big deal,” Snyder explains, adding that organizers brought in hundreds of students from all over the world, heads of state as well as television media and the press. “We’re talking about the government inviting attention to itself on a very important but also potentially very risky historical issue,” the historian remarks.

Civil society meanwhile, including historians and non-governmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s, are “generally way out and ahead of the government” and have done much to explore and bring attention to Holocaust history. In 1991, the year Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union, the Holocaust was not a widely discussed topic of conversation. Now, however, “the average educated young person in Ukraine knows enough to ask a good question,” Snyder says, “and doesn’t find the whole subject strange.” Ukraine has made great strides, the historian explains, adding “where was the United States in Holocaust commemoration in 1970? Where was Germany, where was France? So you could turn it around and say Ukraine has actually taken less time to get to where they are.”

Reflections of a Holocaust Survivor

Back across town, however, I get a slightly different view from Abraham Kristein, an 84-year old Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in the Pechera concentration after the Nazi invasion of Soviet Ukraine. Though he believes that anti-Semitism has decreased over time in his country, Kristein says it’s all somewhat relative. To be sure, he says, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko demonstrated progress when he promoted commemorative services at Babi Yar. In a sign of the times, Ukraine now even has a Jewish prime minister, Vlodymir Groysman, who is exceedingly popular. Nevertheless, Kristein believes anti-Semitism is deeply rooted within the Ukrainian state. Take, for example, Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far right Svoboda political party. “Tyahnybok is just a former member of parliament,” Kristein says, “though inside the power elite, there are people who share his ideas. Some people even complain that Jews serving in parliament don’t bear Ukrainian names.”

Kristein is angered by recent moves to commemorate controversial Ukrainian nationalist fighters from World War II by renaming local streets in their honor. Specifically, the Holocaust survivor is referring to Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, two figures who he calls “mass killers.” Bandera, whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists or O.U.N. fought alongside the Nazis during part of World War II, has been celebrated as a hero in Ukraine. His supporters claim that Bandera only allied to the Nazis due to his underlying anti-Soviet convictions, and hoped that Hitler would later grant Ukrainian independence. Today, Bandera is celebrated by right-wing extremists and hated by Jews for savage campaigns carried out in his name. Shukhevych meanwhile served as a leader of the U.P.A. or Ukrainian Insurgent Army. His men massacred thousands of Jews, including women and children, while fighting with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Red Army and communists.

Controversial Street Renaming

Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko deserves credit for helping to organize commemorations at Babi Yar, yet his municipal administration too is compromised by its ties to right wing and revisionist historical forces which are embroiled in the controversial street renaming. Despite howls of protest from the local Jewish community, Klitschko and the Kyiv city council renamed Moscow Avenue or Moskovskiy Prospekt, in honor of Bandera. Reportedly, the vote wasn’t even close, with 87 out of 97 deputies on the council voting in favor of the measure. In the wake of the decision, citizens launched several petitions pleading with authorities to cancel the renaming. Needless to say, Volodymyr Viatrovych, a controversial historian who heads up Ukraine’s Institute for National Remembrance, praised the decision. Critics say Viatrovych downplays and even “whitewashes” the role of non-Jewish Ukrainians in anti-Semitic pogroms and atrocities which occurred during the Holocaust.

Mayor Klitschko speaks at Babi Yar ceremony.
Mayor Klitschko speaks at Babi Yar ceremony.

Bandera isn’t the only historical figure to stir controversy. Take, for example, Simon Petliura, a mediocre leader of Ukrainian independence during the country’s war of independence following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Some scholars argue that Petliura personally ordered pogroms in 1919, in which more than 1,000 Jews were killed. In the same year, the Soviets vanquished Ukrainian nationalists and Petliura himself fled into exile in Paris. Several years later, the former leader was fatally shot by a Jewish assassin who claimed to be avenging infamous earlier pogroms. Despite such controversial history, the local Kyiv city council voted in 2009 to rename a busy thoroughfare, Comintern Street, for Petliura. What is more, Ukraine recently held a minute of silence on the anniversary of Petliura’s assassination, and television channels were interrupted to broadcast the image of a burning candle.

Confrontation vs. Accommodation

The ascendance of Ukraine’s right wing has put the Jewish minority community in a quandary, with some leaders assuming a more confrontational stance while others seeking accommodation. Eduard Dolinksy, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, has condemned the street renaming, while others such as Josef Zissels, Danilchenko’s boss and Chairman of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress General Council, argue that over-preoccupation with street renaming might lead to “unnecessary assignment of blame that serves only retrospection but fails to offer a vision for the future.”

“I don’t like it that streets are renamed after Bandera and Petliura,” Zissels tells me during an interview. On the other hand, he adds, “We have to consider that the majority of Ukrainians see Bandera in a positive light, and it’s counter-productive to attack a symbol which the majority of Ukrainians see as positive.” Zissels, who was a key proponent of the 2013-14 EuroMaidan revolution which toppled pro-Kremlin leaning Viktor Yanukovych and encouraged a sense of Ukrainian patriotism, has been extremely diplomatic in his political statements. The Jewish leader believes Ukrainian rightists of the wartime era are being honored not for their anti-Semitic crimes but for fighting for independence against Russia. Speaking out against Ukrainian nationalists may only serve to encourage Russian propaganda efforts aimed at Kyiv, or so the logic goes.

Look at it this way, Zissels explains: “We are moving toward democracy but currently we are definitely not a democracy.” Ukraine, a newly-independent nation, is searching for its own national heroes. In time, Zissels hopes Ukrainians will adopt new role models such as the so-called “Heavenly Hundred” martyrs who were killed during the revolt against Yanukovych. “There were three Jews among the martyrs,” Zissels notes, “which makes us very proud. This demonstrates that Jews are participating in the fight for freedom and democracy.”

Controversy at Babi Yar

As if Bandera and Petliura weren’t controversial enough, certain commemorative speeches delivered at Babi Yar also stirred debate. Speaking before the Ukrainian parliament or Verkhovna Rada, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin remarked that Ukrainian collaborators helped the Nazis commit atrocities at Babi Yar, thus challenging rightwing attempts to glorify the O.U.N. and U.P.A. Needless to say, historian Viatrovych predictably leapt into the fray, accusing Rivlin of propagating the “Soviet myth of O.U.N. participation in the Holocaust.” Unfortunately, there was no official rebuke to Viatrovych’s remarks, and reportedly Rivlin’s speech resulted in a wave of anti-Semitic speech on the Ukrainian internet.

Oddly enough, Rivlin’s speech also sparked controversy within the Jewish community. “After the Israeli president delivered his remarks,” Zissels tells me, “I was very angry and I publicly stated my disagreement in the name of my organization.” Ukraine, he adds, “has made great strides over the past twenty years by acknowledging what happened at Babi Yar, and this represents a big advance over Soviet times. The overall trend is positive.” Some others, however, have taken a more critical stand: recently more than 20 Ukrainian Jewish groups signed a rare joint statement condemning wartime apologists and Holocaust denial.

Interview with Local Jewish Leader

While in Kyiv, I meet up with Dolinsky to get the Jewish expert’s perspective on Babi Yar, historical revisionism and the rise of right wing politics. To be sure, he tells me, Jews represent “a very integrated community” in Ukraine. Moreover, Dolinsky was “surprised and impressed by the level of commemoration” at Babi Yar. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire lifetime, or during the existence of independent Ukraine,” he exclaims. “I was particularly impressed by Poroshenko’s speech. No Ukrainian president or Prime Minister has ever made such declarations. Poroshenko demonstrated deep understanding, and touched on every aspect of the Holocaust.”

Nevertheless, Dolinsky certainly hasn’t shied away from controversy and the Jewish leader recently penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times, expressing fears the government had appeased the far right amidst a “movement to rehabilitate the O.U.N.” As I speak to Dolinsky at a local Kyiv café, he expresses deep dismay over the Rivlin controversy. “The Israeli president said one sentence,” the Ukrainian Jewish leader says, “and you can’t imagine how he was abused. Even by Jews! On the internet and Facebook there was a great backlash and people said ‘get out of this country and go back to Israel.’ I never would have expected this.”

TV Firestorm

Recently, Dolinsky was embroiled in a political firestorm when the Jewish expert made an appearance on a local talk show hosted by TV personality Savik Shuster. During the show, panelists addressed the issue of Babi Yar commemorations and Dolinsky brought up the role of the O.U.N. during the Holocaust. However, the Jewish leader was careful to preface his remarks with some historical context. “The Ukrainian people were heroic,” Dolinsky remarked. “Six million Ukrainians fought against Nazism in the Second World War. One and a half million died in the fields fighting the Nazis.”

Having cleared the air Dolinsky then told the panel --- which incidentally included none other than controversial historian Volodymyr Viatrovych --- that Ukrainians as a whole weren’t responsible for the Holocaust, but there was a specific organization which perceived the Jews as an enemy to be disposed of. To back up his claims, Dolinsky read O.U.N. historical documents verbatim which categorized Jews and Poles as hostile and anathema to national interests. Dolinsky says the documents were themselves published by the Institute of History of Ukraine. “These documents were totally authentic,” Dolinsky declares, “and Viatrovych confirmed as much during the show.”

Nevertheless, once Dolinsky opened his mouth the entire audience starting shouting at him and the discussion degenerated into a wild circus. People howled that the documents were “fake F.S.B.,” “nonsense” and “Putin propaganda.” “You can’t imagine what it was like,” Dolinsky exclaims. “I couldn’t even speak, and all I was doing was simply reading text from the documents.” The Jewish leader says the whole exchange was widely viewed on YouTube and though he received some moral support from the public, others threatened him over e-mail and Facebook. When I ask whether he planned to inform the police of such matters, Dolinsky answers “I will inform the security services but I’m not sure the latter support me because they’re politicized.”

Paradoxical Position of Jews

Paradoxically, even though Jews represent a well integrated minority in Ukraine, they must be mindful of political developments in their midst. If anything, recent events underscore concerns: this past New Year’s Day, nationalists marched in Kyiv to celebrate Stepan Bandera’s birthday. As they marched, demonstrators chanted “Jews out,” in German. Meanwhile, Dolinsky has encountered further difficulties on the internet and even had his Facebook account suspended. The trouble started when the Jewish advocacy leader posted an old video of a Soviet trial of two U.P.A. members who had participated in the murder of Jews during World War II. As he posted, Dolinsky was careful to avoid use of any foul language or objectionable content. Nevertheless, Facebook flagged Dolinsky as violating the site’s terms of service.

While Ukrainians have certainly made great strides in coming to terms with the Holocaust and certain unsavory aspects of the country’s wartime record, many remain oblivious to Jewish culture and society. Vadim Altskan, a historian and senior project director at the International Archival Programs, says younger Ukrainians, even those who inhabit cities which were formerly 70 to 80 percent Jewish, know nothing about the past. “An entire civilization vanished,” he has said. “Yet if these young people come across Jewish graves at an overgrown cemetery or ruins of synagogues, they have no idea what this is. It’s six or seven centuries of history! You can’t get rid of it. It exists. And without discussing these difficult questions, nobody will move forward.” Prior to World War II, a full quarter of Kyiv’s 800,000-strong population was Jewish. Today, Jews number about 100,000 in a city of around 2.8 million, yet Yiddish is seldom heard on city streets.

If they wanted to encourage inter-ethnic understanding and spark a political conversation, Kyiv residents could start by simply walking over to Podil and talking with the local Jewish community. Perhaps, if more people grasped the full extent and contribution of Jewish history and culture, right wing forces would become increasingly marginalized. “There were Jews in Kyiv for as long as the city existed,” Snyder remarks during our conversation. “Indeed,” the historian adds, “there were Jews in Kyiv before there were any Jews in Moscow or Warsaw, because those cities didn’t even come into being until later. A huge amount of secular Ashkenazi culture comes from this part of the world, and just demographically most Jews from North America and Israel have something to do with the territories which are now part of Ukraine. So there is a whole history there which has to be discovered and presented.”

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer and photographer. Check out his booklet, Ukraine’s Revolutionary Ghosts.

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